Arts Council England (ACE) has taken on the work of the Libraries Taskforce until March 2020, as part of its remit as the development agency for libraries. However no further funding for the Taskforce has been allocated after that point.
While the Taskforce was originally set up by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to deliver recommendations from the Independent Library Report for England, ACE told The Bookseller it was now “timely” for it to assume the lead responsibility for its development work as part of ACE's role as the development agency for libraries and since libraries have now been integrated into its 2018-22 National Portfolio.
In practice this will involve the coordination of Taskforce activities, research to support the Taskforce’s work, governance arrangements, assisting in the regional development of the sector and managing communications for the Taskforce.
According to ACE, the work of the Taskforce “will continue to build on existing good practice, partnerships and other activities that are already supporting public libraries”. It will also “continue to promote and advocate for libraries to national and local government and to potential funders, while highlighting the contribution public libraries make to society and to local communities”.
However funding for the Taskforce is only in place up to March 2020. No additional funding has been allocated beyond this date, and neither has a new chief executive for the Taskforce been appointed, ACE confirmed. The Taskforce's original chief executive, Kathy Settle, left in March of last year.
Ian Anstice, editor of Public Library News, said: “So, effectively, it's goodbye to the Libraries Taskforce, whose duties are now formally part of Arts Council England for a year until it, presumably, disappears forever.”
Taking the opportunity to take stock of the legacy of the Taskforce in PLN’s latest newsletter, Anstice went on to credit it in doing “some good work in highlighting the importance of public libraries to central government departments, although with questionable impact and depth” as well as for being “a good sharer of information”. He added: “I'm not sure what other concrete achievements it has, although to defend it further, it did come into existence at the toughest time in public library history, world wars included, and, as a civil service entity, was unable to criticise or otherwise hold the neglectfully hands-off government to account.”
Nick Poole, chief executive of Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) - which is one of the partners of the Taskforce alongside Libraries Connected, the British Library, the NHS and the Local Government Association - welcomed the move.
"CILIP welcomes the transition of Taskforce responsibilities from DCMS to the Arts Council England," he said. "Any Government-commissioned Taskforce should be time-limited, with the aim of empowering the sector to take ownership of its future.
"The transition of Taskforce responsibilities signifies an acknowledgement that ACE, working closely with CILIP, Libraries Connected and the British Library, is ideally-placed to lead the next phase of library sector development. We look forward to working with the Taskforce both to highlight the fantastic work delivered by libraries across the country every day and to addressing the challenges brought about by budget cuts and devolution."
Libraries consultant and former Waterstones m.d. Tim Coates reiterated urgent action is needed to persuade councils to return libraries to their core service of books and reading, but expressed cynicism ACE would be up to the task without “senior direction”.
Coates said: “If the Arts Council are to provide any action at all - and they have never achieved that in the past decade of their responsibility - they have to persuade councils to reverse their long standing policy of diversifying libraries and returning them to a core service of books and reading. That has to be urgent in order to be effective next autumn in the budget round.
“[ACE] should not be left alone to do it. They need senior direction - but goodness only knows from where that might come.”